State of the Birds USA 2004
From Audubon Magazine September-October 2004:
How are our nation's birds really faring? Audubon's science team has pooled the best data available since Silent Spring to report on their overall health. Depending on the habitat in which they live, they could be flying high or sinking fast.
This report sums up the status of 654 bird species native to the continental United States according to the country's four major types of natural habitat—grass, shrubs, trees, and water. Urban habitat, which is increasing more rapidly than any other type, is also included; the ability of birds to adapt to it has become a major factor for their survival. An additional 46 species native to the continental United States use a variety of habitats and were not part of the analysis.
The population trends reported for each bird species and in the pie charts of increasing and decreasing species within habitats are based on national Breeding Bird Survey data from 1966 through 2003. Coordinated and analyzed by the U.S. Geological Survey, this annual count provides a comprehensive picture of population change for more than half of all non-game species. Estimates of each species' population were calculated by the four bird-conservation initiatives for wetlands and wood mentioned below. Audubon has also correlated many of these trends with our own Christmas Bird Count, and that initial analysis supports these findings. In these web pages, we include the full report from the magazine, plus tables of WatchList species that prefer each of the five habitat types (grass, shrubs, woods, water, and urban). These results do not take into account loss in each of these habitat typles prior to 1966, when most of America’s wetland loss, and much of the loss of America’s forestland, occurred. This may appear to indicate that loss of habitat and declines in bird species in forests and wetlands is not severe, but this is not the case. The loss of habitat and bird declines in these areas was more severe in the decades before 1966. All declines catalogued in “State of the Birds” are compounded upon earlier losses, and wetland and forest species continue to suffer from the effects of poor land management.
All species were assigned to one of three color-categories: green (of no or low conservation concern), yellow (of moderate concern), or red (of high concern). These designations were based on assessments conducted by Partners in Flight, Waterbirds for the Americas, the U.S. Shorebird Council, and the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Species in the green category are so widespread that their survival is not now in question; at the same time, many of them are experiencing startlingly rapid and precipitous declines. Birds in the red and yellow categories comprise the Audubon WatchList of species at risk. Red species are of the highest conservation concern, because they suffer small population and range size, and declining population trends, and because they face major threats. Yellow species are of high concern for the same reasons, but their problems are not as severe. A pie chart to the right of each habitat description (grass, shrubs, woods, water, and urban)shows the proportion of that habitat's species classified as green, yellow, and red.
The Big Picture
Americans love birds. There's no denying it. A third of all adults in this country, 69 million people, take time out of their busy lives to watch them, according to a survey co-sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. While most bird-watching is done from the comfort of home, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that 18 million of us travel at least a mile out of our way during the year to see them, and spend $32 billion annually on gear, services, and trips.
Birds contribute to our economy in more subtle ways, too. They eat up to half their weight each day in rodents, insects, weed seeds, and other pests. They pollinate flowers and distribute beneficial plant seeds. And when forces begin to upset the environmental balance, they serve as important indicators that something should be done to correct it.
In the classic case, plummeting populations of Brown Pelicans, Ospreys, and Bald Eagles sounded an alarm about the toxicity of the chemical DDT, leading to its ban in 1972. The subsequent recovery of these species has been one of our great environmental success stories. But today we face a similar harbinger. Poor land use decisions, certain agricultural practices and overgrazing have caused the dramatic decline of grassland and shrub-land birds described in this report. If we heed this signal and take appropriate action, we may yet be able to celebrate another victory for wildlife.
Thanks to several cooperative efforts—under the umbrella of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative—we have valuable information about current U.S. bird populations. We now know which species are most rare, which have the smallest ranges, which have had the steepest population declines, and which face the most serious threats. This report brings together all of this information for the first time. The result is a powerful assessment of U.S. bird populations and the actions needed to help them recover.
Threats to avian life in the United States are many, but the most serious is the outright loss of habitat due to poor land use, the clear-cutting of forests, the draining of wetlands, and sprawl. Even when habitat is not totally lost, it is being degraded by poor agricultural practices, bad forestry practices, excessive water diversion, unsustainable mining and drilling, pollution, exploitation of resources (particularly commercial over-fishing), and invasive non-native species (which include predators, plants, insects, diseases, and even other birds).
Because the most formidable dangers are habitat-based, this report summarizes the state of nearly all North American birds according to the five environments—grasslands, shrublands, woodlands, water, and urban—that make up the continent. But birds here face other perils as well. Climate change, air and water pollution, pesticides, and collisions with buildings, towers, and wind turbines also take a toll.
Many birds leave our borders to breed in Canada or winter in the West Indies or Latin America. Since we must work collaboratively throughout the Western Hemisphere to protect them, Audubon has become a full partner with BirdLife International. The two organizations share a commitment to conserve the most threatened species and Important Bird Areas—habitat critical to their survival.
Figure 1. These are the primary habitat associations of the 700 species that regularly occur in the continental United States: 47 in grasslands, 107 in shrublands, 232 in woodlands, 268 in water or wetlands, and 46 in multiple habitats.
Birds have always filled an important niche in our ecosystem, as well as a special place in our hearts and imaginations. There are more than 700 species native to this country alone—each beautiful, wild, and unique. For even one to go the way of the Passenger Pigeon is a tragedy of epic proportions. To have 85 percent of grassland birds declining, as they are now, is unthinkable. The State of the Birds is something each of us has had a hand in writing; by working together, each of us can have a hand in rewriting it, too.
What You Can Do
Don't be intimidated by all the numbers—here are 12 ways everyone can help to keep common birds common and reverse the decline of globally threatened species. Start small, but think big.
1. Make your yard a haven for birds by creating a pesticide-free habitat of native plants, providing supplemental food and water, and putting out birdhouses to encourage nesting. Also, keep cats indoors and add decals—such as dots or bird silhouettes—to clear-glass windows. The Audubon At Home website has more handy tips.
2. Go birdwatching and share your enthusiasm by inviting others to join you. Wherever you go, be sure to remind the businesses you patronize and the people you meet in the community that you're there because they've preserved important avian habitat. For an example of a birding "calling card," visit the Florida Birding Trail web site. Look for other opportunities at http://www.audubon.org
3. Make sure your purchases help bird populations, not hurt them. For instance, Audubon’s shade-grown coffee creates important winter habitat for migratory songbirds, organic produce is grown without agricultural chemicals that kill beneficial insects and pollute the environment, and nontoxic cleaning products keep harmful chemicals out of watersheds.
4. Participate in citizen-science projects, like the Christmas Bird Count and the Great Backyard Bird Count, which further our knowledge of avian populations. Audubon chapters, nature centers, and state offices are a valuable resource to help get you started; contact information for them is located here.
5. Adopt a local Important Bird Area, a site designated as essential habitat for one or more bird species. Participate in bird counts there, help with maintenance and restoration efforts, and educate your neighbors about its value. You can also nominate a new site to your state IBA coordinator; contact information for your state's coordinator can be found here.
6. Protect wildlife habitat and Important Bird Areas by advocating more funding for the Land and Water Conservation Act, which allocates money to expand and protect national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges, besides offering matching grants for state and community open-space projects; the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, which gives matching grants for projects that benefit wetlands-associated birds in the United States, Canada, and Mexico; and the National Wildlife Refuge System, 95 million acres of land and water managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for habitat and recreation.
7. Help state wildlife agencies save "at-risk" bird species before they become endangered, by asking Congress to increase funding for the State Wildlife Grants Program. These grants enable state agencies to implement on-the-ground conservation with public and private landowners, avoiding the cost and controversy of last-ditch recovery efforts. Each state is currently writing a wildlife conservation strategy, but additional funding will be required to carry them all out.
8. Speak out for long-distance migrants, many of which nest in Canada in summer, and fly south to Mexico, Central and South America, or the Caribbean for the winter. The Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act provides matching grants for projects that conserve Neotropical species through habitat protection, education, research, and monitoring. This important piece of legislation should be fully funded at the $5 million level currently authorized by Congress, and the authorized amount should be increased as well. Projects in the United States and Latin America are now eligible for grants; Canadian projects should also be included.
9. Fight back against invasive species, which threaten more than one-third of the birds on the Audubon WatchList. Invasives are the chief menace in national wildlife refuges and Important Bird Areas, as well as in the privately owned landscapes that connect these habitats. Two bills pending in the current Congress would help combat them: The Species Protection and Conservation of the Environment Act earmarks grant money to states to control invasives where they pose a significant risk to native birds and wildlife; and the National Aquatic Invasive Species Act prevents and controls introductions of aquatic invasive species.
10. Defend the Endangered Species Act. If passed, recently introduced bills would cripple the designation of "critical habitat" required for a species' recovery and throw up roadblocks to the listing of species. The Bush administration has also proposed excluding wildlife experts from the process of determining if pesticides harm endangered species.
11. The report shows that grassland and shrubland birds need to be a higher priority for conservation. Thus, public and private lands that support grassland and shrubland birds should receive special attention for conservation action in agricultural conservation programs and the Farm Bill.
12. Bird conservation is being thrown a curve through global warming that affects the location and persistence of appropriate bird habitat. Action to begin the long-term process of addressing climate change must begin and The McCain-Lieberman "Climate Stewardship Act," is a start.
To receive alerts on these legislative issues, sign up for the Audubon Advisory. This biweekly e-mail provides background on votes pending in Congress and quick links for you to take action. Each voice counts, so make sure yours is heard.
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